As you might know, I've spent the last several months working for one of the coolest clients ever: LinkedIn. They hired me back in July 2007 and I was impressed on day one. I was originally hired to help them evaluate open source Java web frameworks and try to determine if moving from their proprietary one to an open source one would help improve developer productivity.
After looking at all the options, I recommended we look at Struts 2 and Spring MVC - primarily because they seemed to be the best frameworks for a LinkedIn-type of application. Another Engineer and I prototyped with Struts 2 for about 6 weeks and came up with a prototype that worked quite well. While our mission was successful, we found a couple issues with Struts 2 and standard JSP that might actually hurt developer productivity more than it helped.
The reason I was asked to prototype with Spring MVC was because they were using Spring on the backend, Spring MVC in a couple other projects, and a new project was being kicked off that used Grails. Rather than add another framework (Struts 2) to the mix, they wanted to see if they could suppress any further framework proliferation.
After a month of prototyping with Spring MVC + JSP, my results weren't as good as Struts 2. With Struts 2, I was able to use OGNL to do all the things their current JSP implementation allows them to do (call methods with arguments, use statics in EL, etc.). With standard JSP, a lot of this wasn't possible. If it was - it required writing lots of tag libraries and made it more cumbersome for developers to do certain things. At the end of that project, I determined that using FreeMarker might solve these problems. I also determined that neither Struts 2 nor Spring MVC would solve the ultimate problem of developer productivity. Neither framework would allow developers to go from make-a-change-and-deploy, wait-3-minutes-to-see-change-in-browser to make-a-change, save and wait-15-seconds-to-see-change-in-browser.
I recommended that this be the ultimate goal - to get rid of the deployment cycle and to allow minimal turnaround when deploying modified classes. After that problem was solved, it's true that moving to an open source web framework would likely provide an easier-to-remember API. However, the problem with moving to a new web framework would be that everything used to construct the existing site would suddenly become legacy code.
In the end, we concluded that the best solution might be to enhance the existing framework to be more like the available open source options. This would allow existing applications to keep using their code -- and if we enhance properly -- new applications can use a simpler, less verbose API and a templating framework that's easier to understand. We can make LinkedIn's version of JSP more like standard JSP while allowing its powerful EL to remain. We can add support for JSP Tag Libraries and Tag Files.
One of the benefits of moving to an open source web framework is there's a community, documentation and books that describe the best (or most common) ways to solve problems with the framework. LinkedIn has this, but it's all in code and no one seems to have a high-level of confidence that the way that they did it is the "best" way. Developers communicate well, but all the knowledge is stuck in their heads and inboxes - there's no way for new developers to search this knowledge and figure it out on their own without asking somebody.
By adopting an open source web framework, it's possible to solve part of this problem, but I think it's still going to exist - where a few engineers know how to use the framework really well (for the specific application) and the rest don't. We determined that regardless of open source vs. proprietary framework, what was needed was a set of developers that acted as authorities on how to develop web applications at LinkedIn. A UI Frameworks Team if you will. This would be their only job and they would never get pulled from this to work on projects or complete tasks related to LinkedIn's products. Some developers mentioned that they'd been asking for this for years, and some folks had even been hired for this. However, the formulation of this group has never happened and it's obvious (now more than ever) that it'd be awesome to have them.
The UI Frameworks Team
At the end of 6 months, it seemed my work was done at LinkedIn. I liked the idea of a UI Frameworks Team and recommended they start it with the authors of the existing web framework. They agreed this was a good idea. A few days later, I was pulled into the CTO's office and he offered me the job. He offered me the challenge of building this team and told me I could do it remotely (from Denver) and hire my own people to help me with it. I gulped as I realized I'd just been offered the opportunity of a lifetime. I knew that while this might not be the best option for LinkedIn, it certainly was an excellent opportunity for me. I said I'd think about it.
In the meantime, I was given a project which you might've read about. They asked me to migrate a Rails application to Grails and try to determine if they really needed both frameworks. I spent 2 weeks coming up to speed on both and flew to Mountain View to deliver my conclusion. Here's an excerpt from an internal blog post I wrote.
The application that I was asked to port from Rails to Grails? The one that was launched last week - LinkedIn Mobile.
After doing this research, I stepped up to the plate and accepted the offer to start a UI Frameworks Team and recruited some kick-ass Java Developers I know to be the founding members. Last week, I flew out to Mountain View to do some kickoff meetings and start getting the infrastructure in place so we can document, support and release code like a well-oiled open source project. There's nothing saying we won't use an open source web framework as the underlying engine, but I think this should be an excellent chance to see the power of open source governance and development style in a corporate environment.
Director of Engineering, Core Experience